One man’s 5k- mile trek through war- torn West Asia

The Asian Age - - Books - Justin Marozzi

Ask most peo­ple whether they fancy a four- month, 5,000mile trek across West Asia and they might con­clude you need your head seen to. With civil war rag­ing in Syria, Iraq mired in in­ternecine con­flict while mop­ping up the rem­nants of Daesh, al- Qa’eda run­ning amok in south­ern Ye­men and sim­mer­ing strife be­tween Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans, walk­ing across 13 coun­tries might not seem like an ob­vi­ous itin­er­ary.

But Le­vi­son Wood, it is fair to say, is not your av­er­age trav­eller. A com­mit­ted biped, he is the author of a trio of books on walk­ing the Nile, Hi­malayas and Amer­i­cas re­spec­tively. Os­ten­si­bly un­like the other tele­vi­sion- led jour­neys which pre­ceded it, this ex­pe­di­tion was meant to be a lower key af­fair, though on­line pub­lic­ity for an ac­com­pa­ny­ing doc­u­men­tary sug­gests oth­er­wise.

The ad­ven­ture be­gins in Iraq, where, be­fore you can say rocket- launcher, Wood has launched him­self into a mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion, sit­ting on the front of an ad­vanc­ing tank as the Shia Hashd mili­tia flush out the last diehards of Daesh. This is ei­ther com­mend­ably coura­geous or border­line id­i­otic, de­pend­ing on one’s view. A more peace­ful and re­flec­tive so­journ fol­lows in the re­flooded marshes of south­ern Iraq.

The Gulf coun­tries of Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE are despatched in quick or­der and are not re­ally his cup of tea. In his own words, and rather un­fairly, he claims to have learnt that “very lit­tle comes for free in the Arab world”, though as the book and jour­ney con­tinue he re­alises the value of the ex­tra­or­di­nary hos­pi­tal­ity he is re­ceiv­ing, of­ten at con­sid­er­able per­sonal dan­ger to his con­stantly chang­ing com­pan­ions. Ever the para­trooper, he en­joys drink­ing bouts where he can, and re­gales us with tales of stink­ing hang­overs. What would his heroes Lawrence of Ara­bia and the as­cetic ex­plorer Wil­fred Th­e­siger have made of it?

In Oman, the camels come out at last and Wood heads to the desert with re­lief, and an­other guide who doesn’t re­ally pass muster: “Noth­ing can beat hav­ing a lo­cal who knows the lan­guage and the nu­ances of na­tive cus­toms, re­li­gion and cul­ture,” he writes.

Ye­men brings out the re­porter in him. He writes mov­ingly of the hor­ren­dous ru­ina­tion of the coun­try at the hands of the Saudi- led coali­tion. It’s more hair­rais­ing stuff, all the while ap­proach­ing the closed king­dom of Saudi Ara­bia, whose gov­ern­ment shows lit­tle in­cli­na­tion to al­low him in, not­with­stand­ing the per­sonal in­ter­ven­tion of a se­nior Bri­tish royal, per­haps Prince Charles. Even­tu­ally he does man­age to en­ter, though only af­ter brav­ing the So­mali port of Bos­saso and a voy­age by rick­ety dhow that would ter­rify the be­je­sus out of most trav­ellers.

The Saudi regime is odi­ous, es­pe­cially un­der Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, but Wood at least gets a chance to see a side of

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